Open Studio Art Therapy

I currently run a weekly open art therapy studio group at the organization where I work. Many people (and clients here) have never heard of the phrase “open art therapy studio.” Generally, there tends to be some confusion about what makes this type of therapy group different from other groups, and what the “open” part is all about. Below is an exploration of this topic and I hope that it helps to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

“Closed” vs “Open” Art Therapy Groups

In general, closed art therapy groups refer to groups that are made up of specific clients who have made a commitment to come on a weekly basis. Although some groups allow clients to join during the second or third session, most are solidified by that time. Closed groups tend to have a set amount of time that they will meet (from 4 weeks to a year etc). These groups are often created with a specific group of people in mind such as: cancer survivors, people who are struggling with addictions, or a women’s group. In addition, closed art therapy group art experientials are often more specific – meaning that the art therapist provides a specific art directive for that session. The directive may be the exploration of a specific theme, such as “create an image of what your anxiety looks like.”

Open studio art therapy groups usually do not have a set of specific criteria for who may participate. During most open studios, clients choose the materials as well as the theme of the artwork themselves. However there are also open studio groups in which the art therapist provides the group members with specific art therapy directives.

In my current art therapy open studio group, clients do not have to make a commitment to come every week, and new clients can join at any time. That being said, there do tend to be “regulars” in open studio – clients who show up every week. I always tell new clients that the group composition may continue to shift over time, unlike a closed therapy group. I also remind clients that the same privacy rules apply in an open group as in a closed group. I ask clients to respect each other, and maintain the group’s sense of safety by keeping the personal conversations shared within the room in the group.


The physical layout and setup of the studio space sets the tone for the open studio group. If your space has windows, I encourage letting in as much natural light as possible (provided it doesn’t become blinding during part of the day!) I personally cannot stand fluorescent lights, but sometimes they are the only option depending on the facility. If possible, utilize a lamp or two that give off a warmer light. 
I truly enjoy the ritual of setting out the supplies for that day and arranging them in a way that is enticing and visually interesting. The way you lay out your materials conveys a level of respect for them as well as for the group members. 
Playing music during open studio is a highly individual decision. Working alongside music therapists has given me a deep appreciation for how much even soft background music can influence the energy of the space. People have highly unique reactions to music, and you should keep this in mind when selecting music. Case in point: I once began an open art therapy studio with some music by Tuck Andress. (He is an incredibly gifted guitar player who creates beautiful music). I had selected the music because I personally found it to be relaxing and inspirational. About a minute into the group I noticed that one of the patients was becoming agitated. I checked in with her to see what was going on. She yelled ” I hate this song!” and ran out of the studio. I stared in amazement at my co-leader, who was a music therapist and my supervisor at the time. Later, during supervision she used this incident to remind me about the power of music and the many different ways it can be experienced by people. (The patient did come back to my next group, and I had learned an invaluable lesson!) This is an extreme example, but one that will hopefully make sense when considering the use of music. Often, music can be a powerful addition to art making during open studio – just utilize it as consciously as possible.
Art Materials
In some open art therapy studios, the art supply cabinets are left wide open so that participants can select any material they are drawn to. Other studios are set up to offer a specific set of materials. Think about the experience that you would like to provide and the emotional properties that are attached to certain materials (a detailed post on the significance of art materials coming up!)
During my work in an acute psychiatric unit I had to be more mindful about my selection of materials because of the unit’s rules. For example, “sharps” (exacto blades, scissors, pencil sharpeners) are not generally used in these group settings. If they are used, it is usually done under the supervision of the therapist. Always check with your specific organization’s rules regarding allowable materials. Other examples of materials to check on are: spray paint, certain glues, and permanent markers (which can be abused if inhaled). 
Some people may feel overwhelmed by a plethora of supplies, while others may feel restricted by a limited selection. Experiment with different approaches and see what feels right. What feels right will change depending on the make-up and needs of the group.
I was once told to think of art materials in terms of “food.” Like food, art materials can provide sustenance in the form of creativity. Some people feel compelled to “consume” as many of the materials as possible, and others may show inhibition or “restriction” in their use of materials. There is no right or wrong, but the way in which materials are used most always provides some insight into the art maker.
Group Processing
To process the art or not to process? And if it is to be done, during or after? Or both? Some open studio approaches adhere to a “no commenting” guideline when it comes to the artwork. For example, the Open Studio Project in Illinois encourages sharing of the artwork without group feedback. The artist may choose to speak about their own image, and the rest of the group serve as silent witnesses to the piece. Part of the philosophy behind this method of group process is that the silent witnessing frees up group members to be more present and attentive, and generates an atmosphere of respect and safety. 
In general, my approach to facilitating open studio groups tends to be a blend of methods – consciously chosen to fit the needs of the particular group that day. My preferred style is to allow thoughts and feelings to be shared in an organic way, as they emerge naturally from the creative process. At times I will leave time at the end of group to allow clients to share their work and any feelings that came up for them. I remind everyone that this is not an art class “critique” and encourage others to respond with their feelings and associations, rather than their opinions on the aesthetic quality of the art. Sometimes the sharing is done during the actual creation of the art and unfolds spontaneously.

To the outside observer, there may be a question of “where is the therapy?” That is one of the beautiful things about this type of studio process. A skillful art therapist is able to weave together the different pieces and feelings of the group in a cohesive way; respecting each individual’s unique creation while illuminating the common thread running throughout the group. I am constantly amazed by the power of art and its ability to transform individuals within a group dynamic.

Recommended Reading:
Studio Art Therapy: Cultivating the Artist Identity in the Art Therapist, Catherine Hyland Moon
Art is a Way of Knowing, Pat B. Allen
Creating with Others: The Practice of Imagination in Life, Art, and the Workplace, Shaun McNiff
Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, Shaun McNiff

Art Therapy Techniques: 3 Self-Portraits

@font-face {
font-family: “Courier New”;
}@font-face {
font-family: “Wingdings”;
}@font-face {
font-family: “Cambria”;
}@font-face {
font-family: “Tahoma”;
}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }ol { margin-bottom: 0in; }ul { margin-bottom: 0in; }

Woman In Yellow ~ Sara Roizen~ 2010
I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the subject grow to look like his portrait.    –Salvador Dali
Art therapists use countless approaches and techniques when working with individuals and groups. Sometimes specific therapy techniques are also called “interventions” (not to be confused with the dramatic drug “interventions” we watch on TV)!
Although an art therapy intervention may be presented in a specific way, the ways in which an individual or group may respond are infinite. Therefore, even though interventions tend to be specific, they must always be presented with the unique individual in mind. Art therapists are trained to make interventions based on what they feel about their client’s needs at that moment.

In traditional “talk” therapy, interventions take place through the therapeutic dialogue. In art therapy, the therapist is able to blend the verbal process with the visual process.  

The “3 Self-Portraits” experiential can be a powerful and transformational process for many. Below is a description of how I have introduced this technique to clients:
If this is the first time creating the 3 self-portraits, I tend to use dry materials such as oil pastels, chalk pastels, colored pencils, or markers. This can be an emotionally charged experience, and wet materials (such as paint) tend to be more regressive and are more likely to trigger emotional “flooding” in the client. Whenever possible I give the client the highest quality paper that I have available. If this kind of paper is not available, then of course even white computer paper will do.
Create 3 different self-portraits on 3 separate pieces of paper.
1) how you see yourself
2) how you think others see you
Hungry Ghost II ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2010
3) how you would like to be seen  
I encourage the self-portraits to be more abstract in nature for two reasons. One reason is to prevent the artist from getting overly caught up and distracted by trying to create a perfect “likeness.” The other reason is to encourage the artist to think “outside of the box” and free them up to explore with color, lines, and forms. The individual may work on the portraits in any order that feels natural, and may even alternate between drawings during the time period.
I recently used the “3 Self-Portrait” technique during an art therapy group for clients who were newly diagnosed with HIV. It was a talk therapy group, and I was invited by the therapist to be a “guest art therapist” and lead the group for a night. The group had been meeting for a few weeks already, and so there was a level of warmth and overall comfort among the members.
The group expressed a great interest in making art, but were understandably a bit apprehensive at the same time. I encounter this all of the time when working with adults in particular. Many adults haven’t made art since they were children, and there is often a great deal of anxiety related to the pressure to create “a masterpiece.” For this reason I spent the first few minutes of the group addressing the client’s anxiety and even exploring some of their earliest memories with art. As the group members spoke about art making as a child, they became increasingly eager to “play and explore” again using the art materials. As always, I emphasize the importance of the process over the product, and encourage clients to ease into the experience while relaxing expectations about the finished piece.
The group members clearly took this advice to heart, because a few minutes later they were all working away silently – completely immersed in their art making. When I gave them the 5 minute time check towards the end, I was met with requests for more time! (I am always amazed by how quickly the art process can transform a group in this way).
As the group members shared their self-portraits, the process unfolded organically as it so often does. One client shared a portrait that showed a close-up of one of his eyes. He told us that he had been “afraid of the image” at first because of what a strong image it was. He revealed that most people are caught up in his physical features (specifically his beautiful eyes). He felt that even though people saw his eyes, they did not see through his eyes – and therefore did not truly see him.  The eyes are often referred to as “the window to the soul.” Here is an example of art therapy and working with metaphors, to express one’s feelings on a deeper level.
Another group member was touched when he realized that his “future” self-portrait portrayed himself in a hopeful light. When he shared this the other group members realized that their future self-portraits were all hopeful as well. This surprised many of them, as they had associated being newly diagnosed with HIV with a bleak future. The self-portraits revealed hidden strengths in each of the clients and helped to imbue them with a sense of hope and purpose.
With this group, the dialogue evolved very naturally as a result of the process. Some groups may need a little more guidance from the group leader. Below are some examples of questions that might encourage group discussion.
Questions to encourage further exploration and provide insight might include:
·      Which portrait was the easiest to create? Which one was the most difficult?
·      Do you see any similarities between the portraits? What are the differences between the three?
·      Speak as if you are the image. What do you need to feel complete as the image, or do you already feel complete?
·      Were there any surprises in creating the portraits?
·      If you strongly dislike one of the portraits, what would the image need for you to like it?
·      If this was done in a group setting and the members have built some trust with one another, you may invite group members to share what they see in each other’s portraits. (Often the sharing of images can encourage very powerful exchanges among members).
If you are interested in some of my past posts about art therapy techniques, just click on the “Art Therapy Technique” label in the right hand corner of my blog. Topics include techniques such as: mask making, mandalas, and altered books. 
A-part ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2001

Art Therapy and Dreams

@font-face {
font-family: “Cambria”;
}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.
–Edgar Allen Poe
@font-face {
font-family: “Cambria”;
}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
The other night I had a dream that I was dreaming about dreaming…Confusing? A little. It was a dream within a dream within a dream! When I woke up I half-wondered, was I still dreaming? My take on “reality” had temporarily shifted, and I was inspired to write a little about my work with dreams and art therapy.
The combination of dream-work and art therapy can be a powerful and illuminating experience when approached in a way that honors the dreamer and his or her relationship to the dream.

Bruce Moon is an art therapist who often explores dreams within an existential framework. (For an excellent read, I recommend his book: Existential Art Therapy: The Canvas Mirror). He describes existential art therapy as “a journey of self-discovery that is shared by the client and the art therapist.” He believes that the overall purpose of engaging in dream-work and art therapy is to help the client discover and create meaning in his or her life.

In my work with clients and their dreams I deliberately refrain from offering my own interpretations of dreams. To analyze another’s dream is to assign meaning to something that belongs solely to the dreamer.  In this way, I approach a client’s dream in the same way that I approach his or her art work. I do not interpret the creations based on my point of view. Instead I serve as a witness and guide to the client’s unique journey.
During a session, clients may be open to creating an image of the dream. Since dreams are layered (and laden with many images) it can be helpful to ask the client to pick just one scene from the dream to depict. Some clients may work abstractly and capture the feeling of the dream in colors and shapes, while others may work in a more representational style. I have had clients draw, sculpt, or collage artwork about their dreams, based on their material preferences. When the client is finished with the piece, we usually place the art in between us. The client speaks freely about the piece and what he or she sees in it. Sometimes I will offer to take notes for the client, so that he or she has a record of initial responses.  Again, in this way of working, it is important to remember that there are no “cookie cutter” dream meanings. For example, one person might associate dreams of falling with feeling unencumbered by gravity and experience it as a symbol of freedom (for those of us who enjoy skydiving:) Another person may experience a dream of free falling as terrifying. The meaning is entirely derived from the client.
Sometimes I have asked clients to imagine themselves as different elements of the dream, and not just as “themselves.” For example, if a client has a dream about their mother, father, and sibling I might ask the client to re-inhabit the dream from each family member’s perspective. This way of exploring a dream will often provide additional insight to the dreamer. It also encourages the client to practice flexibility in interpersonal relationships and strengthens the ability to “try on someone else’s shoes.”
Since I was a child I have almost always remembered my dreams upon waking. Many clients have told me that they have difficulty remembering their dreams though. Keeping a dream journal by your bed can be a helpful method in strengthening dream recall. If a dream is particularly intense or even disturbing it can also help to write it down immediately upon waking up from the dream, even if it is in the middle of the night. Once the dream is jotted down, the intensity often diminishes and the dreamer is able to get back to sleep more peacefully. Writing dreams down upon getting up in the morning is also very useful. The writing does not have to be long, but can just include some key elements or words that are associated with the dream. Sketching an image from a dream is another way to record the dream.
Dreams provide clients with insight into the self, and they can also serve as rich sources of inspiration for creative work: art, writing, music, and movement. Dream-work can be further enriched by the addition of these creative modalities – for example, finding a song that seems to evoke the essence of the dream. There is no right or wrong way to explore a dream, as long as the dreamer is the one creating meaning.
Interested in diving deeper into the world of dreams? Here are a few movies I’d highly recommend – all exploring dream states and questions of what is really real?
Inception (2010)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Spirited Away (2001)
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Waking Life (2001)
Avatar (2009)
The Matrix (1999)
What Dreams May Come (1998)

Mask Making & Art Therapy

Mask making appears in many different cultures and throughout the course of human history. As an art therapy technique, I have found mask making with clients to be an incredibly interesting and often illuminating process for both of us.

Creating and then wearing a mask allows us to expose parts of ourselves that we are not usually willing to embrace in everyday life. Or, in contrast a mask may cover up who we really are at the moment, and then acts as a protective shield from our true feelings. Lastly, we could simply be trying on a different persona and allowing our imaginations to run wild!

I enjoy working with plaster of paris strips when creating a mask with a client. When appropriate, the plaster of paris can be applied directly to the client’s face in layers (make sure to apply a layer of vaseline over areas with hair – such as eyebrows, mustaches, etc). However this way of working is not appropriate for every person. It is a very intimate process, and the person who is having their mask created must be able to stay still for some length of time. For some, this type of human contact and stillness can be too triggering. In these situations, there is another technique that involves laying plaster strips over a pre-created face mold. The molds are usually plastic and can come in animal shapes as well as human face shapes.

There are many questions that the client can ponder when looking at the mask…did they paint the inside and the outside of the mask, or only one side? If so, is there a reason for this? Pay attention to colors used and the amount of detail or lack of detail. The client can have a dialogue with the mask – asking the mask what it needs, who it is, and what is has been created to tell him or her. Do they feel that the mask exposes their true feelings/self, or does it serve to hide them from the outside world?

Creating a mask also opens the door to other modalities such as drama and dance. Once the piece is created, encourage the maker to wear it and move in a way that reflects the mask’s persona. If a group of people have all made masks, there is even more possibility in allowing the group members to interact with one another through their masks and movement.

Mural in Progress ~ 5th Day of Class

Today the kids began a large group mural as a collaborative art project. It was one of the most amazing art experiences I’ve ever witnessed. The kids were faced with many challenges and I deliberately stepped back a bit to see how they would come together creatively. Challenges to address included: how do we begin? how do we all paint on a canvas that isn’t large enough for all of us to paint on at the same time? should we have a theme? how should we execute the theme if we do have one?

In the beginning many of the students looked to me to tell them how to start, but I gently encouraged them to speak with each other and come up with a plan that included everyone and made everyone feel good. As I receded into the background for a while, I watched as the Palestinian and Israeli teenagers came together on their own, and began the mural.

The next two hours were astonishing to watch. They came up with a system so that everyone would rotate and have time at the canvas. Where one left off, another began. There was no fighting and everyone seemed genuinely happy with the direction that the mural was taking.

Without any prompting from me, they decided to create a mural that addressed the conflict as well as the dream of peace. In the middle is a girl, who they call “the dreamer.” She lives on one side of “the wall” which is represented by the grey areas and the bombs bursting behind it. To the right is her dream – of a peaceful time. A beautiful tree with an eye symbolizes what “the tree sees everyday, but is unable to speak of.” The tree is beginning to reach over to the other side of the wall, and seems to be forming a protective canopy over the dreaming girl.

Metaphorically I could not help but see the stretched canvas as a symbol of the disputed land and the conflict between the Israeli’s and Palestinians. Here the teenagers were presented with a relatively small canvas (small piece of land) to work on, with not enough room for everyone to “touch” at once. However, despite this seeming challenge they came together almost seamlessly to create art.

Tomorrow morning we will finish the mural and I will post the finished mural pictures. This piece will be one of the many art pieces on view during the Artsbridge Gala on August 6th, here at Boston College’s gallery. In the meantime, here are some pictures of the students in different phases of the project, and some of the almost finished mural.

Transitional Objects

“It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people–the transitional space–that intimate relationships and creativity occur.”
-(D.W. Winnicott from Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,1951)

The term “transitional object” is used frequently in art therapy. In her book Handbook of Art Therapy, Cathy Malchiodi gives an excellent description of the meaning behind transitional objects and how this relates to art therapy:

Art products can become transitional objects which may become imbued with meaning beyond what they are in reality. For example, a drawing or painting made by a child who is dependent on the therapist for support may become a transitional object in the absence of the therapist, defusing separation anxiety. In a similar vein, an adult may make a clay figure of a parent who abandoned her as a child, symbolically evoking that person and the unresolved trauma of separation. Henley (1992) notes that art product functions as a transitional object because it supports self-relationship and empowerment and encourages connection with the therapist who facilitates the creative expression.
(Malchiodi, 2002, p.54)

When we are young, a transitional object for us may be our “blankie” that we drag with us to our first day of preschool as a “stand-in” for our parents while we are apart. When we are older, a transitional object may be a piece of jewelry, given to us by someone we love as a reminder of their place in our lives. At the end of our first year in graduate school, my supervision group worked on clay pieces for the last few classes. These evolved over a few weeks, and were left to air-dry for our last day of class so that we could take them home with us as a transitional object from our time together this year.

Our supervisor and teacher Alison gave us each a creative piece of herself – a hand-made ceramic piece that she had created – each one slightly different and unique. In this way, she gave us a transitional object that could visually and symbolically represent her when we no longer met on a weekly basis.

Both pieces are sitting side by side in my studio, and overlooking me as I create. For that matter, my studio has become filled with these transitional objects – many from clients and friends. Each one acts as a container for special memories and experiences that I have shared with others.


“I had to abandon the idea of the superordinate position of the ego. … I saw that everything, all paths I had been following, all steps I had taken, were leading back to a single point — namely, to the mid-point. It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the centre.
It is the exponent of all paths. It is the path to the centre, to individuation.
… I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had attained what was for me the ultimate.”
– C. G. Jung


Mandala is a Sanskrit word that means “circle.”
Mandalas can be seen in the artwork and symbolism of every culture. In Art Therapy, mandalas play a very important role as a transformative symbol and process. In art therapy, a mandala is any imagery that is contained within a circle. The created mandala is a reflection of the artist’s self at that moment. Mandala’s tend to help focus and center the person who creates it. There is no “right or wrong” when creating a mandala, and in fact, the less you consciously think about it, the richer the mandala will be in form. In this way, the mandala becomes a mirror that we hold up to our unconscious – discovering apects of the self that we might have been previously unaware of.

Below I have shared a few mandalas that I have created recently. I have found them to be incredibly helpful for me to create after particularly emotional, stressful, or confusing groups that I have led, or when I need to emotionally contain a particularly intense experience. The simple act of creating within a circle is deeply relaxing and illuminating. I encourage everyone to allow yourself the space and creative freedom to create a mandala!

Altered Books

An altered book is a book (can be found, bought used, or new) that is taken and transformed through any myriad of processes, including but not limited to: painting, cutting, collaging, stitching, gluing, or adding 3-d objects to it. The idea is to use the beginning book as a springboard for creating a completely new and personal piece. The pre-existing art and text in the book can serve as inspiration and often leads to free association and greater creative possibilities and explorations.

Next week in my Art Materials class we will be creating our own “altered books” and so the hunt is on for a book that I can use! Although any style of book can be used, it was recommended that we look for hard cover books (for a stronger foundation) and think about using a children’s book for the first time, as they are rich in imagery and text that we can really play around with.

In the coming weeks I’ll be working on my altered book and will post images of the book as well as thoughts on the creative process involved in the creation of the book.

In the meantime, our teacher shared a wonderful site of an artist that makes altered books, among other multi-media pieces. I was very inspired by her work and encourage you to check out her website:

Above images
upper left: Karen Hatzigeorgiou
13″ x 19″

lower right: Karen Hatzigeorgiou
The King’s Garden
13″ x 16″